TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It used to be unthinkable for a Hollywood star to come out as gay. But if you stayed in the closet, you could be blackmailed. Gay celebrities often faced serious personal consequences for being forced to live a double life. A good example of that is Rock Hudson. In the 1950s and '60s, he was considered an all-American, hetero heartthrob, the leading man in romantic melodramas like "All That Heaven Allows" and "Magnificent Obsession" and romantic comedies like "Pillow Talk" and "Lover Come Back." He starred with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor in the film "Giant." In the '70s, he starred in the TV series "McMillan & Wife" as the police commissioner of San Francisco.
His secret was successfully concealed from the public until he was dying of causes related to AIDS. In 1985, he died at the age of 59. It was a turning point in the public awareness of the AIDS epidemic. As playwright William Hoffman put it, Hudson's death made people realize AIDS is a disease, not a moral affliction. My guest Mark Griffin is the author of a new biography of Rock Hudson called "All That Heaven Allows." Griffin's previous book was a biography of film director Vincente Minnelli.
Mark Griffin, welcome to FRESH AIR. Reading your book about Rock Hudson, I was thinking how painful it must have been for him to be one of Hollywood's leading men, one of the most, quote, "eligible bachelors" while being a closeted gay man. Do you have any insights into, like, the emotional distress it must have caused him to have to hide who he really was?
MARK GRIFFIN: It's really interesting that if you read or look at interviews that Rock conducted over a long span of time, many decades, this one particular phrase, as I mention in the book, keeps coming up: I just learned to keep my mouth shut. This was - even as a young man, this was the beginning of Rock Hudson's life as a covert operation, if you will. So much of his life had to be interior, and he didn't feel free to express so much, the fact that he had these great ambitions to be an actor. He never told any of his closest friends back in Winnetka, Ill., about that.
And similarly, you know, all these issues in reference to his sexuality were certainly something that - today, we have these dialogues very freely about issues of sexuality. But back in the 1940s and the 1950s, when Rock was arriving on the scene in Hollywood, it was a very different culture, as we know. And all of that was repressed, and he could not say any of that aloud.
GROSS: Well, it sounds - (unintelligible) from your book, it sounds like even when he was growing up, his stepfather would punish him any time the stepfather thought that any gesture or activity that Rock Hudson - who was then Roy Fitzgerald (laughter) - was engaging in was at all effeminate. So he learned early on to act straight.
GRIFFIN: Right. Most people assume that this reconditioning of Roy Fitzgerald, former truck driver from Winnetka, Ill., into this Hollywood Adonis began when he met his notorious but very influential agent Henry Willson. But as you mentioned, it actually started years earlier. Sadly, Rock did have this abusive, alcoholic stepfather, Wallace Fitzgerald, who was a former Marine. And Rock tells this sort of tragic story that when he built up the courage to tell his stepfather that he had these ambitions to be an actor, his stepfather hit him - and not only that but I think confiscated any toys that he thought were in some way effeminate and discouraged any theatrical ambitions that Rock may have had.
GROSS: When Rock Hudson was still Roy Fitzgerald, he was discovered by Henry Willson, who was also gay. What was Henry Willson's role in Hollywood?
GRIFFIN: He was a very influential figure in Hollywood, which is interesting when you think, you know, here's a gay man who was - I wouldn't say overt, but he wasn't as closeted as some of the actors had to be. And he managed this platoon of sort of B-list hunks that we're now very familiar with. And this would include not only Rock but Tab Hunter, Rory Calhoun, Clint Walker. There was just a whole slew of them. And Henry, unfortunately, did not have the most sterling reputation in the industry. I think it was fairly well-known that if you were a Henry Willson client, as Tony Curtis once expressed it, you probably had to sexually express yourself to Henry.
So you know, here is sort of the flip side of the #MeToo movement. It's the gay casting couch, if you will. And when Rock first met Henry Willson, this is basically one of the first contacts that he had into Hollywood. There had been a previous mentor, Ken Hodge, that Rock had been briefly involved with, and he had some contacts in Hollywood. But really, it was Henry Willson who not only discovered Rock but kind of cultivated this whole matinee idol image for him. And there was a lot of reconditioning that happened. You know, his - they got him voice lessons with a former opera singer. And you know, I think there was a fair amount of butching him up so that he seemed matinee idol ready.
GROSS: So just to clarify, was Henry Willson an agent, a manager, a casting - like, who - what was his official role?
GRIFFIN: He was an agent, and he had started in the business writing for some of the fan magazines of the time. And I think that sort of gave Henry Willson an insider glimpse as to how to sell someone to the public. You know, so when he was writing profiles of movie stars, you know, oftentimes he didn't report exactly what he saw in front of him. He would redress it so that it was more palatable for the public.
GROSS: How much did the agent Henry Willson manage Rock Hudson's off-screen life to create the image in real life that Rock Hudson had on-screen, you know, as this, you know, romantic, heterosexual, strong, heroic, romantic figure?
GRIFFIN: I think a fair degree of influence. And this was true not only of Rock but many of the other actors that were in Henry Willson's stable. And you can look at this two ways. You know, some people tell me - well, Henry is often painted as the archvillain of the story. But he could also be very supportive. A lot of these actors - for example, Guy Madison was a sailor, and Rory Calhoun was an ex-con, and Rock was a truck driver. So they didn't have any legitimate experience, and they were brought into the business simply because, in the beginning, they were so photogenic and so handsome and marketable that way.
And I do think that Henry stage-managed their lives to a great extent, particularly in the beginning before stardom really came calling. And I think that's especially true with Rock, who needed guidance - though later on he came to resent this and felt that Henry Willson took too much credit for the star-making and sort of was leaving Rock out of the equation in terms of his own success. You know, Rock said, well, there had to have been something there that I built upon initially, or none of this career would have happened. So - but it took a long time for Rock to leave Henry Willson. I think that he felt that he needed him as a lifeline.
GROSS: Did Willson set Rock Hudson up with dates for - to be seen in public so he'd look like - oh, he has such attractive girlfriends and what an exciting bachelor life he leads?
GRIFFIN: I do think that was Henry Willson, and I also think that - it's a little bit of a - is the word conspiracy that I want to use? It's the - Universal, as Rock's studio, is having a hand in this. It's the fan magazines of the time, Photoplay, who want to present this particular image of Rock Hudson to the public. And it's - you know, Rock himself, of course, was a participant in this.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of a magazine story about Rock Hudson that presented the illusion of Rock Hudson?
GRIFFIN: Well, the first example that comes to mind in terms of how Rock Hudson was sort of sold to the public, if you will, dates to the early 1950s. And Henry Willson was influential in having Rock and Vera-Ellen attend an event called the Hollywood Flashbulbers Ball (ph).
GROSS: And I should just interject here. Vera-Ellen was an actress who starred in some musicals like "White Christmas" and "Words And Music."
GRIFFIN: "Words And Music," yeah. She danced with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. She had quite a career. And - so it wasn't enough for them just to attend this ball. Henry Willson, I think, had the idea that they really needed to make a splash and be seen presented as the perfect Hollywood couple at this event. And if you can believe it, he had them go dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Oscar. So they were slathered from head to toe in gold paint, sort of a la "Goldfinger," and sort of appearing as living Oscar statuettes. And as you can well imagine, Louella Parsons was all over this. And there was a media frenzy. And pictures of Rock and Vera-Ellen as the ideal Hollywood couple actually outfitted as living Oscars was splashed over newspapers all across the country the following day.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Griffin. And he's the author of a new biography of Rock Hudson called "All That Heaven Allows." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Griffin. He's the author of a new biography of Rock Hudson that's called "All That Heaven Allows." And it's not only about Rock Hudson's movies and how he became a leading man. A lot of it is about how Rock Hudson was closeted throughout his life and how that worked in Hollywood, how that worked for him and other gay actors.
So magazines often presented an illusion of Rock Hudson. But some of the magazines were also very threatening to Rock Hudson and to other closeted actors in Hollywood because they could blackmail you. Was Rock Hudson ever blackmailed by one of the tabloids?
GRIFFIN: Yes. It came very close to that. The classic example of Rock being blackmailed - or threatened is probably the better term - was Confidential magazine. Now very notorious, it launched in 1952. And I think the founder of the magazine, Robert Harrison, said that within a few years, it was being read by over 4 million people. And it was sort of the Access Hollywood, the TMZ of its day and wielded a lot of influence - not in a positive way, unfortunately. And in 1954, the MGM actor Van Johnson was, essentially, outed by Confidential magazine. They did sort of an expose on Van Johnson, who was a very popular actor of the time and had a similar screen aura as Rock Hudson - sort of the boy next door and romantic leading man.
So Henry Willson caught wind of the fact that Confidential's editors were planning a similar expose on Rock. And Rock, at that point, was sort of becoming - was close to becoming one of the No. 1 box office attractions in the world and was certainly Henry Willson's most important client. So Willson had to do some fast acting to prevent this from happening. And as the story goes, he may have sacrificed both one of his current clients, Rory Calhoun, and a former client, Tab Hunter. He supposedly threw Calhoun and Hunter under the bus in the name of saving Rock's career. So I think it was in - I forget what - in 1955, I believe it was, that there was suddenly a cover story that exposed the fact that Rory Calhoun had served time, that he had been an ex-con and had been involved with an armed robbery. And I'm trying to remember the exact headline. But I think it said something like "For The Grace Of God Still A Convict: Rory Calhoun" (ph).
And then just a few months later was another expose, this one probably more damning. And it was about Tab Hunter - the late Tab Hunter, who, incidentally, had fired Henry just a few months prior to this article appearing. And in this particular expose, they wrote that Tab had been involved in sort of an all-male pajama party that had been broken up by the police. So I think it's a pretty clear example of how Henry Willson took a definite and very proactive interest in how he managed his clients, and Rock Hudson, especially. That was - Rock was very much his bread and butter at that point - the number one client - and on the rise in terms of his stardom. He was about to appear in, maybe, the most important film of his career, "Giant." So that's an unfortunate example of how a gay man, Henry Willson, would be willing to sell out another gay man, Tab Hunter, to save the career of a third gay man, Rock Hudson - so interesting dynamic.
GROSS: In setting up this story, you said, supposedly, here's how this story goes. So are you, like, not sure whether Henry Willson really did this or not - whether he really did sell out the other two actors to help Rock Hudson?
GRIFFIN: This is sort of the legend that has been passed down to us, the behind-the-scenes legend of how this played out. And it sounds very credible based on how we know that Henry Willson operated within the industry. Do we have 100 percent certainty that that's exactly what happened? No. But I think we can make some pretty good educated guesses that that's exactly what happened in this instance. And the timing, particularly with Tab Hunter firing Henry Willson just a few months prior, would lead us to pretty certainly believe that that's exactly how it played out.
GROSS: And who's the we and the us that you're referring to?
GRIFFIN: Oh, the proverbial we. You know, this story has been written in other books. It's been talked about in other documentaries. I think this is the accepted version, Terry, of what happened. But do I know that for 100 percent certainty? I would have to be honest and say no. But it sounds very plausible to me.
GROSS: So do you think that most people in Hollywood who knew Rock Hudson understood that he was gay but also understood that it was their job to keep his secret?
GRIFFIN: Yes. I think it was very much an open secret in Hollywood that all of the costars that Rock worked with or, certainly, most of them and directors and production folks knew that Rock was gay. And as one person expressed it to me, he was so kind to everyone that he worked with, whether that was the leading lady or the gaffer or the editor, that everyone sort of kept this secret for him. They knew that if he was exposed at that time that that would have just ended his career immediately. So it is sort of a conspiracy of silence. But it's interesting that they're doing this because they really love this person that they're working with and feel protective of him.
GROSS: So Rock Hudson was married for three years to Phyllis Gates. Was that, like - what were you able to learn about - because this is a kind of question that I still think exists. Like, was it a for-real marriage? Was it a stage marriage? Did she know that he was gay? How much did she understand about that? What were you able to find out about that?
GRIFFIN: What's fascinating is you can talk to 20 different people about the marriage between Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates and get 20 different versions of what each individual believes actually happened there. There's the one version of events where Henry Willson, being very shrewd, knowing that not only confidential but other gossip columnists of the time were sort of on to Rock and baiting him publicly, as we saw maybe in the Life magazine piece - so he knew that he had to get his No. 1 client married quickly. And almost as though he sent out a casting call, he was looking for the perfect person to be the king of Hollywood's consort.
And it just so happened that the ideal candidate was sitting right under his nose. Phyllis Gates was his then-30-year-old secretary, and she was really perfect casting. She was from Dawson, Minn. She had this sort of very engaging, fresh-off-the-farm quality. She was a former Sunday school teacher, very photogenic. She had turned the head of the young Marlon Brando when they were both in New York City early on. So she was ideal. I mean, this - she sort of had the same - the aura that you would want for a young woman who was going to be married to Rock Hudson. She sort of came with this air of county fairs and church socials about her.
And so it could be that Henry Willson very shrewdly put together Rock and his secretary, and a lot of people insist this is exactly how it happened. It was an arranged marriage from the get-go. Other people have suggested to me that, yes, in the beginning, it may have been arranged. But ultimately and surprisingly, Rock and Phyllis may have developed some genuine feelings for one another. And if you read Phyllis Gates' 1987 memoir, "My Husband Rock Hudson," she sort of lays all of the blame for the disintegration of the marriage at Rock's feet and also would like the reader to believe that she had been manipulated or duped, both by Henry Willson and Rock himself, into participating in this sham marriage.
A lot of people that I interviewed find it very surprising that Phyllis wouldn't have had some sort of clue about Rock's sexual proclivities, as she was working for Henry Willson, top powerbroker in the industry. And if extras and bit players knew the score about Rock Hudson, why wouldn't she, being Henry Willson's secretary? I interviewed this wonderful lady, Betty Abbott Griffin, who was a longtime script supervisor at Universal and one of Rock's dear friends. And I asked her about this. And she said, well, that was all totally arranged. And she seems like a very credible source to me. So I tend to believe that Phyllis did go into the marriage knowing fully well sort of what was expected of her and that both Rock and Phyllis were doing this in the name of job security. But whether or not, they actually developed some genuine feelings for one another - that, I couldn't say. But some people have suggested that to me.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Griffin, author of the new biography of Rock Hudson called "All That Heaven Allows." We'll talk more after a break. And David Bianculli will review Season 2 of the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." The first season won a bunch of Emmys, including outstanding comedy series. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Mark Griffin, author of a new biography of Rock Hudson, who was a leading man, a heartthrob in movies of the '50s and '60s, including melodramas like "Magnificent Obsession" and "All That Heaven Allows" and romantic comedies like "Pillow Talk" and "Lover Come Back." But he was forced to lead a double life because he was gay and had the public known that, his career would have been over. He died of AIDS-related causes in 1985. When we left off, we were talking about his brief marriage to Phyllis Gates.
When Phyllis Gates and Rock Hudson were divorcing, she hired a private detective. And he had somebody tape one of her conversations with Rock Hudson. And you transcribed it 'cause this became a pretty famous tape, I suppose. And it became described as Rock Hudson's gay confession. So I'm going to read an excerpt of the transcript of that. She says, how long after we were married did you have your first homosexual affair? And he says, oh, I don't know, the next day. And she says, can you deny that your pattern is that of a homosexual? And Hudson, crying, says, no, I can't deny it, but I never felt we were together on anything. I never felt you loved me.
And I guess I'm reading that excerpt because it's just kind of painful, the things he was leaving himself exposed to as, you know, a famous gay person who had to keep his identity hidden.
GRIFFIN: Yeah, that's very sad, and it's very poignant to hear that - and also to pair that with the knowledge that he didn't even know that he was being recorded at that moment. So he's sort of baring his soul to this woman and doesn't know that this information is ultimately going to be used against him. It's typical Rock, you know? He's always - always seems to be finding himself in a very vulnerable place and sort of not of his own doing. It's just for being who he is. You know, he's finding himself in these difficult situations.
GROSS: I also feel like I have to bring up that she told the judge during the divorce hearings that Rock Hudson had struck her twice, both times after he'd been drinking heavily. I don't know if that's ever been substantiated. But, you know, that would be very disturbing, too.
GRIFFIN: It is. It is, particularly - no matter from today's perspective or when it...
GROSS: Any perspective, yeah.
GRIFFIN: ...Supposedly - exactly, yes.
GROSS: Not good.
GRIFFIN: You know, they did have some pretty volatile arguments, Phyllis says in her memoir. Again, I wasn't there, so I can't comment. I can't say for certain that this happened or didn't happen. I would say this. It sounds pretty uncharacteristic of the Rock Hudson that I've gotten to know in researching his life in the last four years. When you talk to a hundred people or more than a hundred people and they all tell you something redeeming about your subject, that's pretty unusual. And I kind of tell you this whole cataloguing of acts of kindness and good deeds that I heard from virtually everyone that I talked to. So these shocking anecdotes about him supposedly striking Phyllis after he had been drinking, it is disturbing. And it doesn't sort of square with the Rock Hudson that everyone has described to me. But again, I wasn't in the room with them. So I cannot, for certain, say that it did or did not happen.
GROSS: In "Pillow Talk," which is a romantic comedy where he stars opposite Doris Day, they share a party line. And she thinks that he's just a womanizer and has, like, a lot of disdain for him. And he kind of plays this practical joke on her in which he warns Doris Day that somebody else might actually be a gay man - the person who she's been, you know, flirting with and who she has this big crush on. And then - but that person - you explain it. It's complicated.
GRIFFIN: (Laughter) So in "Pillow Talk," you have - Rock is playing a womanizing song writer. And he shares a party line, which I don't know if contemporary listeners will know what that is. Right? - where you share a telephone line with someone else. And you're privy to some of their conversations. And it's, basically, like the plot of "The Shop Around The Corner" or the musical "In The Good Old Summertime" or "You've Got Mail" where you have these two people who do not like each other because of shared circumstances. But then it turns out when they meet for the first time in person that they're actually enchanted with one another, yet they don't know that they are kind of rivals in this other area of their life.
And so what's interesting is in "Pillow Talk," as well as some of the other comedies that Rock made with Doris Day, like "Lover Come Back," which followed, you have - it's a house of mirrors. You have a gay man, Rock Hudson, playing a straight man - I think the character's name is Brad Allen in "Pillow Talk" - who is then, in turn, playing or impersonating a gay man in order to woo Doris' character - sort of this backward thinking that by presenting himself - by presenting the character as this kind of girl-shy nebbish (laughter) that she's going to do her best in the name of heterosexual relations to seduce him. And that's how he will sort of cleverly win Doris Day over. I don't know that I did a better job of explaining the plot there.
But this becomes sort of a tenant of a lot of these comedies, not only the ones with Doris Day but later with Gina Lollobrigida or costars like Leslie Caron, where oddly and ironically, Rock is playing a character who's masquerading as a gay man in order to seduce a woman. So you have to wonder - Rock was a very intelligent man. What is going on in his mind when he's being handed these scripts? And of course, he plays it all very adeptly and shows a wonderful flair for comedy in all of these movies. But you just have to wonder as an actual gay man, you know, how was he processing all of this? And is it having any sort of impact on him psychologically or emotionally? The answer to that I do not know. But I'd be very curious as to what he thought of all of that.
GROSS: Yeah, me too. Let's just hear that scene where he's impersonating being gay. So here he is. Here's Rock Hudson and Doris Day in a scene from "Pillow Talk."
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ROCK HUDSON: (As Brad) Tell me about your job. It must be very exciting working with all them colors and fabrics and all.
DORIS DAY: (As Jan) Rex, would you like some dip?
HUDSON: (As Brad) I'd love to. Thank you. Ain't these tasty? Wonder if I could get the recipe - sure would like to surprise my ma when I go back home.
GROSS: What's really just so difficult about that scene is not only is Rock Hudson straight, impersonating being gay in that, but it's all based on gay stereotypes of, you know, like, he's too attached to his mother. He drinks with his pinky up.
GROSS: You know, he's shy around women. So yeah, I'd love to know what was going through his mind during that. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Griffin. And he's the author of a new biography of Rock Hudson called "All That Heaven Allows." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Griffin, author of a new biography of Rock Hudson called "All That Heaven Allows." And it's about his movies and his place in Hollywood as a leading man in action films and a romantic leading man in dramas and romantic comedies. But it's also about how he was gay and what it was like for him as a closeted gay man in Hollywood. And it offers a lot of insights into what Hollywood was like for other gay men in Hollywood at the time.
Rock Hudson died of causes related to AIDS, and he has a big place in the history of the AIDS epidemic. Is it fair to say he's the first, like, really, really famous person to die of AIDS?
GRIFFIN: Yes, I think it is fair to say - first high-profile celebrity that acknowledged that they had AIDS and that...
GROSS: Yes, well-put.
GRIFFIN: ...In fact, he was dying of it.
GROSS: Yeah. When did he learn he had AIDS?
GRIFFIN: In June of 1984 is when he received the official diagnosis. He had gone to a dermatologist to kind of have this pimple or blemish on his neck looked at. And that turned out to be, sadly, Kaposi sarcoma. And that's when he received this news. And he later told a friend that he cried for a week and was devastated by receiving what was, at that time, you know, basically a death sentence. And it's interesting. The late, great journalist Randy Shilts, who wrote that terrific book "And The Band Played On" probably expressed it best.
GROSS: About the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
GRIFFIN: Yes, thank you. He said there was AIDS before Rock Hudson and there was AIDS after. And I think that what he was getting at there is the fact that it took a high-profile celebrity, a beloved movie icon like Rock Hudson, to finally get the public and - I think we can say - the Reagan administration to wake up to the fact that there was a global pandemic going on and that lots of people were dying.
And after Rock's AIDS diagnosis was announced, I think in July of 1985, suddenly the epidemic was on the front pages of every daily newspaper in the country, whereas previously it had been reported as this mysterious cancer that was afflicting homosexual men and also some Haitians and drug users.
One thing I wanted to note - at the beginning of 1985, which is the same year that Rock died, I think there were approximately 5,500 individuals that had died of AIDS-related causes. And yet, the administration in Washington had...
GROSS: The Reagan administration.
GRIFFIN: Reagan administration, yes - had recommended a $10 million cut in AIDS spending in the federal budget. And after Hudson's death, there was suddenly this about-face, and the House of Representatives announced that it was doubling its AIDS-related funding and allotting, I think, 190 million to HIV education and prevention efforts. So it shows you the power, not only of celebrity but of Rock Hudson's particular celebrity, that, you know, he had been so beloved by so many people that thought of him as the boy next door. If Rock Hudson can get AIDS, then anybody can get it. And if he can get it, why don't we know more about it, and why aren't we doing something about it?
GROSS: It's interesting that President Reagan, who for a long time had, you know, paid - I think it's fair to say - virtually no or very little attention to the AIDS epidemic - I assume he knew Rock Hudson because Rock Hudson had played opposite Jane Wyman in a couple of films. And Jane Wyman had been married - Jane Wyman was Ronald Reagan's first wife, before Nancy Reagan.
GRIFFIN: Right. And I think Rock was friends of both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. I don't know how close, but he attended state dinners at the White House. And there are lots of photos that you can see on the Internet, for example, of Rock posing with them - and not all that long before he died.
One other interesting thing to note - I think it was in 1987, which is a full two years after Rock's death, President Reagan finally offered a public address concerning AIDS, and that was at the urging of Rock's great friend and his giant leading lady Elizabeth Taylor. And by that time, there was 36,000 people, I think it was, that had been diagnosed with AIDS. And Elizabeth had become the national chairperson of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, or amFAR. But one wonders now what would have happened had she not become so visible in the battle against AIDS and had she not made this heartfelt personal appeal to the president. Would that sort of, I guess you could say, head-in-the-sand indifference have continued within the administration?
GROSS: Was it HIV that actually outed Rock Hudson?
GRIFFIN: Well, this is interesting. Yanou Collart is the French publicist and a friend of Rock's who actually made this announcement outside of the American Hospital of Paris that Rock was battling the disease. And so now, retrospectively, I think the phrase that's often used is that it was more of an inadvertent outing. There was never any direct statement from Rock or any of his publicists saying, you know, I am a gay man. I think most people connected the dots - well, AIDS diagnosis; we've heard some of these rumors about Rock and Jim Nabors. If you connect the dots, it can only lead to one conclusion.
And what is very poignant is Rock believed that once this disclosure about his AIDS diagnosis was made to the public, that the public would completely turn their backs on him. And in fact, he received, I think it was 30,000 letters of support from, you know, the general public, moviegoers, people that had grown up loving him and seeing him in the movies. But there never was this direct declaration about his sexuality. I think that's an important thing that we need to point out.
GROSS: Do you think that Rock Hudson's story is an important part, not only of Hollywood history but of gay history?
GRIFFIN: Absolutely - and not only because of the AIDS part of his story. But I think there's - in a sense, he is a reluctant role model, if we want to use that term, that when this situation occurred in 1985 where he divulged that he had the AIDS diagnosis, ironically, he was suddenly the hero of thousands of gay men. You know, this was the most public and beloved person that they had as a role model that they could point to. And it's interesting. In the '70s, the writer Armistead Maupin, famous for "Tales Of The City," was encouraging Rock to come out. This was back in 1976, 1977, somewhere in there. And there were a lot of people in Rock's entourage, his advisers, even his companion at the time, Tom Clark, who were discouraging this. But I think at one point, Rock may have even seriously entertained the notion of coming out - came close but didn't quite get there. It would have been remarkable if not miraculous if he had done so back in the '70s.
GROSS: So Rock Hudson was a movie star. Do you think he was a good actor?
GRIFFIN: I do. And I think as time wore on, he got better and better as he got older. And what's a little bit sad to me is that just as he was hitting his stride as an actor in a film like "Seconds," sort of his time as a leading man was running up. And the big movies - you know, he was no - could no longer be presented as the great matinee idol. So I think just as he was finding his niche and really, really becoming a great, committed, dramatic actor, it was time for him to transition to television and "McMillan & Wife." And that opened up a whole new avenue for him. But I think he was an underrated actor, as Doris Day was, actually, too. I think they were very versatile and skillful and deserve a lot more credit. It's amazing to me that Rock only had the one Oscar nomination for "Giant."
GROSS: Since we are approaching Christmas, do you have a favorite Christmas film? I figure you've seen a gazillion films over the years. And I'm going to guess which one it is. And I'm going to guess that it's "Meet Me In St. Louis" because your previous book was about Vincente Minnelli, who...
GRIFFIN: Right on the money, yes.
GROSS: ...Directed it.
GROSS: And it stars Judy Garland and has great songs in it, like...
GRIFFIN: And, in fact, the...
GROSS: ..."Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."
GRIFFIN: Exactly. That's the movie that introduced that timeless, Christmas classic. And it's interesting that that is a movie that gets shown around the holidays, even though it's just - one segment of it is set at Christmas time. But it is so indelible, and it's so beautifully directed. "Meet Me In St. Louis" is a particular favorite of mine. And it's one that, I think, everyone should - it's a great family film, too. And it's about family at the turn of the century and how they come through all of these little crises that befall their household - and sumptuously produced and, of course, beautifully directed by Vincente Minnelli.
GROSS: Mark Griffin, thank you so much for talking with us.
GRIFFIN: Oh, thank you, Terry. It's been a great pleasure. I appreciate it.
GROSS: Mark Griffin is the author of a new biography of Rock Hudson called "All That Heaven Allows." After we take a short break, David Bianculli will review Season 2 of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." The first season won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANK JONES AND FRANK WESS' "A HANKERIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.